The Pieta

Stanislav Traykov | Michelangelo' s pieta
Pieta by Michelangelo | Travel Back Through Time In the High Middle Ages (1000 to 1300 A.D.), Florence was an obscure republic surrounded by powerful monarchies. Despite internal and external conflicts it rose to prominence through trade. Nobility and high birth did ensure prestige and influence but the families who managed the sources of capital held high positions in government. In the 13th and 14th centuries, the de Medici family effectively ruled the city and their power and influence reached their greatest extents under Lorenzo de Medici (born 1449), who’s son and nephew went to become Popes. Lorenzo de Medici was a prolific patron of literature and the arts and was himself a poet. He promoted and surrounded himself by artists, poets and philosophers who were products of ‘humanistic’ studies, which were an integral part of the ongoing Renaissance. Renowned artists, architects and thinkers thronged to Florence and the city became a flourishing centre of art and culture. Lorenzo the Magnificent was also titled Duke of Urbino.
Lorenzo de Medici
Lorenzo de Medici
Lorenzo’s household included the master sculptor Bertoldo di Giovanni. According to legend, in 1490, Lorenzo came upon Giovanni’s student, a 13-year old boy learning to sculpt marble by copying an image of a satyr (woodland gods of classical Greece and Rome). Lorenzo was impressed by the boy’s creation but pointed out that such an old creature wouldn’t have a whole mouth of teeth. Recognizing the logic, the perfectionist student immediately hacked off a tooth. Lorenzo was charmed and invited the boy to stay and study in his home. The boy had been christened Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni. As Michelangelo grew up in the Medici palace, he was tremendously influenced by humanist and Neo-Platonic thinkers. The Greek philosopher had espoused that there was one universal truth, which could be expressed in different forms. With this philosophy, artists combined classical secular and Christian motifs in their works. Michelangelo met the painter Sandro Botticelli who had a powerful impact on the budding artist’s style. The poet Angelo Poliziano and historian Cristoforo Landino informally continued Michelangelo’s disrupted education.
Portrait of Michelangelo
Portrait of Michelangelo
Lorenzo was the last great scion of the Medici dynasty. After his death in 1492, political and religious upheavals in Europe undermined the power of his successors. Michelangelo briefly left the Medici palace to study anatomy at a hospital of the church of Santo Spirito. During this time in Florence and neighbouring Venice, Michelangelo received several commissions, which served as preludes to his mastery over marble and canvas. At 21, Michelangelo made his first visit to Rome to study some great statues of antiquity. These classical sculptures were nude and gigantic; they celebrated the ancient ideals of virtue, physical beauty and truth. They reflected the inspired sculpture of the early Renaissance and were in stark contrast to the conservative, merely decorative, Gothic works of the Middle Ages. The budding maestro would receive a commission that would carve his destiny as the greatest sculptor of his time; perhaps of all time. In 1498, A French cardinal named Jean de Billheres, who was serving in the Eternal City, decided that he should be remembered long after he died. For his tomb, the cardinal commissioned Michelangelo to immortalize a scene extremely popular in northern European art but not in Italy: the poignant vision of the Virgin Mary bringing down Jesus from the Cross and holding him in her arms. The theme was called Pieta, one of the sacred milestones in the life of the Virgin mourned in prayer as the Seven Sorrows of Mary. De Billhere’s formal demand was that the sculpture should be “the most beautiful work of marble in Rome, one that no living artist could better”. Thus it was that such an ambitious project had been entrusted to an artist barely into his twenties. The sculptor’s interpretation of the Pieta was extraordinary for its time. The masterpiece evoked the Renaissance ideal of physical beauty and balanced it with naturalism. Furthermore, multi-figured sculptures were rare even in the Renaissance period. The two figures are unified to achieve a pyramidal effect favoured by other artists of the time, including Leonardo da Vinci. Michelangelo used a single block of white and blue-grey Carrara (Italian city) marble for the memorial. He would later declare that it was the most ‘perfect’ block of marble he had ever used. Marble has been the preferred material for sculptors because of its white smoothness and relative softness. Michelangelo famously said that he could visualize the sculpture within the block of marble; it was simply a matter of removing the extra stone and freeing the image inside. Probably the master’s first challenge was to ‘balance’ a man’s body on a woman’s lap. Though both the heads are proportional, Michelangelo made the Virgin’s body larger than Christ’s to achieve the grace with which the Saviour reposes in his mother’s lap. Mary’s larger dimensions are achieved with monumental drapery, which hides much of her body. Michelangelo amassed the garments on her lap beneath the body of Christ. This allows the figure to widen down towards the end of her dress till it touches the rock of Golgotha, from the site near Jesus’ crufixion, which forms the base of the sculpture. The abundant folds showcase Michelangelo’s craftsmanship and supremacy of technique in cutting deep contours into marble. The multiple, natural looking folds, curves and deep recesses make the robes seem more like actual cloth and less like stone. The sculptor’s prowess in carving drapery and folds is matched by his treatment of human forms and facial expressions. The emphasis is to create an image of tenderness in the face of a catastrophic loss. Neither Mary’s nor Jesus’ face shows signs of grieving and suffering. Mary, despite her utter devastation seems resigned to her son’s grueling death; her face reflects graceful acceptance of what has happened. Christ too is depicted in serene slumber rather than someone who has gone through hours of torture. This was intended to represent the sanctification of Christ. Overall, the two figures were meant to look beautifully idealized despite their recent suffering. This is derived from the High Renaissance belief in Neo-Platonism, which held that all the beauty of earth is a reflection of God’s magnificence; the elegant figures were sculpted to mirror divine splendour. Michelangelo also broke new ground with the youthfulness of Mary’s face. When the statue was first unveiled, some observers said she looked too young to be the mother of a 33-year old son. According to his biographer Ascanio Condivi, Michelangelo’s response was: Do you not know that chaste women stay fresh much more than those who are not chaste? How much more in the case of the Virgin, who had never experienced the least lascivious desire that might change her body? However, some scholars have speculated that Mary’s face represents the serene aspect of a young Mary as she cradles the child Jesus.
Pieta by Michelangelo
Pieta by Michelangelo
The Pieta was made between 1498 and 1500 and was an instant success; it launched the much-celebrated career of the 24-year old Michelangelo. One day, he entered the place where the statue was set up and found a great number of people admiring and praising it highly. One of them asked who the sculptor was and a man by his side answered, “Our Gobbo from Milan”. Michelangelo was dumbstruck; he could not conceive his talent and labours could be attributed to someone else. One night he entered the place with a light and some chisels and shut himself up. Then he proceeded to etch his name on the diagonal band running across Mary’s torso. Then came a peculiar twist in the signing saga. According to historians, most visitors still assumed the statue to be the work of other artists. Michelangelo’s signature resembled that of Polykleitos and Apelles, both famous artists of Ancient Greece. This caused Michelangelo to regret carving his name on the Pieta and vowed to never again to put his name on any of his creations. Thus, in his illustrious and extensive portfolio, the Pieta is the only work signed by Michelangelo. Michelangelo lived for six more decades after completing the Pieta and had the satisfaction of inspiring artists from many generations through most of the sixteenth century. The statute was one of the most venerated art works of the Italian High Renaissance and is even today studied as one of the best sculptures of all time. Indeed, it appears among the top five in all the ’Best Sculpture’ lists on the Internet. It may be surmised that the statue served its intended purpose as the tomb memorial of Cardinal de Billheres because it was located at Santa Petronilla Chapel, a Roman mausoleum. The chapel was demolished when St. Peter’s Basilica was rebuilt and The Pieta was incorporated into the first chapel at the right of the entrance to the Basilica. When the Pieta was relocated to St. Peter’s four of the Virgin’s fingers on her left hand were broken. An artist by the name of Giuseppe Lirioni was tasked with restoring the statue, but some scholars contend that the renovation was a ‘gesture quite rhetorical’. Creative people are known to be moody and whimsical. When a piece wouldn’t go as planned, Michelangelo would often shout at the stone images whip the stone limbs. It might be said that he wouldn’t dare do something like that to the images of Jesus and his mother; but the Pieta by Michelangelo was once the victim of a deliberate attack. On the Pentecost Sunday of 1972, a mentally ill geologist named Laszlo Toth stormed into the chapel and thrashed the statue with a hammer. As he kept hitting, he raved and ranted that he was Jesus Christ. The left arm of the Virgin was severed; her nose was broken along with a part of her left eye. Several onlookers salvaged the broken pieces, some of which were eventually re-attached to the statue; other pieces had to be recreated. Toth was dispatched to a mental hospital for two years, but its further restoration became a matter of debate. Some experts thought that a damaged piece of original art should not be tampered with; the mutilation becoming part of its present meaning. Others proposed that the Pieta by Michelangelo should be repaired with visible seams as a reminder of the assault. The Vatican authorities ultimately decided on a seamless restoration so that observers could see no trace of anybody having even touched the masterpiece. It is presently exhibited behind bullet-proof glass. The Pieta is not exhibited in a formal museum, but St. Peter’s Basilica is not only a major pilgrimage centre but also a popular tourist attraction. However, the Basilica’s cultural heritage and its breathtaking architecture, statuary make St. Peter’s a living museum of Christendom, art and history.

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